When myself and my co-host interviewed Travis Kalanick on our podcast, he had recently co-founded a little snowball called UberCab. It was so early in Uber’s existence he didn’t even mention it.
I notice Uber falls into a category of companies I call little snowballs. There are some fundamental features these companies have in common. I thought it might be helpful to list a few little snowballs and then talk about how you can go about starting your own.
Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp commissioned the creation of a simple app that enabled users to hail a black car on demand. To validate they asked friends and colleagues to install the app. They hired a driver & watched what happened. After a few months of hustle the app hit 10 rides in one day.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia bought a few airbeds and put up a static site called “Air Bed and Breakfast”. They expanded the concept so that other people could offer airbeds in their homes and make money too. Then they expanded the idea to rooms, then to entire apartments. Their journey was a hustle from hell, but they made it happen.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page built a web search engine. It was one page with a search box and submit button. The backend was a simple database search returning ranked results based on the number of backlinks. It did a really good job at providing search results, and took off.
Stewart Butterfield worked with his Tiny Speck group to build a better team messaging app. Slack makes it really easy for people to signup and start chatting as a team. At its core Slack is a simple IM client.
AT&T, Dollar Shave Club, Buffer, Shazam, DropBox
What is a Little Snowball?
“A startup that is founded to do-one-simple-thing-well, and that can be massively grown outward from that starting point.”
- Very simple idea with a single facet
- Extremely low product surface area (frontend and backend)
- Can generally be prototyped and brought to market in months
- Is instantly useful and quickly gains early-adopter traction
Each of these markers makes it considerably easier for you as a founder to start and grow the first version of your business.
A Simple Single Facet
Just about every part of growing your business becomes easier if the foundational idea is do-one-thing-well. I’ve been part of a number of startups where it was almost impossible to explain what we do in a single sentence. This wreaks havoc during sales meetings and investor pitches.
However, when your startup is a single cell organism, customers and investors are not confused about what you do. Word of mouth and viral loop growth becomes significantly easier to achieve. You can focus on growing the business, rather than trying to understand what the business is.
A Low Product Surface Area
This is a huge, almost unfair, advantage. Dollar Shave Club is the ultimate example. An idea you can build and launch in a weekend. Then, from Monday forward, spend all your time, effort and money on marketing and learning about your customers.
I learnt this lesson the hard way. I launched my tool Pluggio, a tool that buffers social content, at the same time as Buffer. Buffer focused on doing one-thing-well, while I built Pluggio out to become a social media dashboard. Ironically, no matter how many features I added, Pluggio’s main selling point continued to be social buffering.
So, while I was adding 100k lines of code to make a really slick single page web app, Buffer was marketing and integrating their very simple app. Due to my high product surface area, my time was sucked up by support requests. Sales were harder because the product was harder to explain. Integrations were a non starter because the product was to complex.
After 3 years Pluggio’s yearly revenue was $50k and Buffer’s was $1m.
Fast to Prototype and Launch
The sooner you can get to market, the sooner you can validate and start learning about how your customers make purchase or adoption decisions.
Often times you can quickly validate a business by taking very manual steps that don’t scale. For example, if you wanted to validate the business hypothesis – People will order coffee from a delivery app – you could get 250-500 business cards printed out saying – We deliver coffee. Call us on 123-123-1234. – then hand them out at the mall at breakfast time.
The very next day you will have some great information about your basic hypothesis.
Build Something People Want
The final little snowball component is to make sure your core idea is something people actually want. Without that je ne sais quoi, your rolling stone will gather no moss.
How Can I Find My Own Little Snowball?
Full disclosure, I am founder of Nugget (startup incubator & community). Our primary purpose is to help you find, and grow, your own little snowball.
That said, here are some tips to help you come up with off the cuff ideas:
This sounds easier than it is. Many founders think at large scale because they want to build a Google or Uber. They feel it’s too much of a gamble to think about smaller things. Another common trap is to get caught in the mindset of thinking more features equals more sales.
To think small, you should notice details of everyday problems going on around you and try to find do-one-thing-well opportunities.
Problems are everywhere. The trick is to open your consciousness to the stream of problems that life presents us with. You would be surprised at how capable we are of drowning out regularly annoying tasks that become part of our daily life. Now it’s time to start to notice those things we’ve trained ourselves to ignore.
One note about this: it’s very important you solve a problem that other people have. That sounds like obvious advice, but if no one else has the problem, you’re dead in the water.
Look For Optimizations
Optimization essentially means “to make something better” and is really just another way to solve a problem. However, thinking through the mental model of optimization can lead you to come up with some interesting product ideas.
For example the core essence of Buffer is an optimization of Twitter.
As a side note. Question: Why didn’t Twitter simply add that feature when they saw it take off in Buffer, Hootsuite and other apps? Answer: They were too busy staying on task and building their own little snowball.
Explore Old Ideas
You probably already have a number of ideas you’ve been thinking about and possibly even products you’ve launched. Have another look at them through the lens of what we’ve discussed here. With any luck, you might find a single facet that can be extracted from that old work and turned into a do-one-thing-well little snowball.
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I’m creator of Nugget, an online incubator & community. We help founders start and grow profitable side projects.